Metacognition and self-regulation- what is the difference and why should we care?

14 November 2017

Author: Julie Watson, Huntington Research-lead: Memory and metacognition


Metacognition and self-regulation seem to have become interchangeable – synonyms for those unsure about the exact nature of each term, or just eager to use the latest education buzz word.

Educational Researcher Barry Zimmerman defines self-regulated learning as ‘the self-directive process by which learners transform their mental abilities into academic skills’. It refers to how able students are to evaluate themselves, identify their strengths and limitations and then effectively employ the appropriate strategies. It also involves students being self-motivated and engaged.

In contrast, metacognition is more specific. Jennifer Livingston of the University at Buffalo offers a clear definition and states that metacognition ‘refers to higher order thinking which involves active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning’.

Therefore metacognition is just one aspect of self-regulated learning that also has a cognitive and motivational component.

Defining these concepts is crucial as effective interventions will not solely focus on metacognition but look at all three aspects. Metacognition is a secure and cheap part of the toolkit that enables students to be successful in their learning. However this will not be the case if it is done in isolation.

This means that we need to do more in addition to developing students’ metacognitive skills by using activities such as:

  • planning how to approach a given learning task: for example considering how they will approach the task and which strategies they will use
  • monitoring comprehension: for example making changes to the strategies they are using if these are not working
  • evaluating progress toward the completion of a task: for example having a checklist that students refer to whilst completing the task

We also need to consider their cognitive skills which are conscious mental activities that include thinking, reasoning, understanding, learning, and remembering. These can be developed by:

  • educating teachers and students about how memory works
  • using in-class activities to encourage deeper processing
  • planning lessons so that students complete spaced out study

Socio-emotional strategies also need to be developed as higher social-emotional skills lead to better attention skills and fewer learning problems. These skills can improve motivation, which is a key factor in the success of students and is essential so that students want to apply the strategies they have developed. Strategies to encourage motivation include:

  • Giving students a sense of ownership: for example letting them select their own target for improvement
  • Making goals high but achievable
  • Sharing our enthusiasm!

Here’s how it might look in action.

metacog tableThe EEF guidance report that will soon be released on metacognition will offer a much needed overview of the evidence in this field.

Understanding accurately what we mean by metacognition as well as cognitive and socio-emotional strategies is essential so that we can ensure we are addressing all of these in our daily practice. Only then will we begin to implement this effectively and ensure that our interventions have the positive effects we all wish for.

Julie Watson, Huntington Research-lead: Memory and metacognition


For more information about our Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning programme please click here:

meta flyer

Posted on 14 November 2017
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